October 23, 2008

New Xfce beta focuses on usability

Author: Bruce Byfield

Xfce version 4.6 is shaping up to be more significant than most minor releases. Besides fixes and enhancements that are invisible to the casual user, the first revision in almost two years of GNU/Linux's third most popular desktop includes numerous changes to applications such as the calendar, mixer, and logout dialog, a new configuration engine, and usability changes to the desktop. Their combined effect is to increase the usability of Xfce without sacrificing any of the speed for which the desktop is well-known.

Code-named Fuzzy, the new beta is available as source code or as packages for the Intrepid Ibex release of Xubuntu. Although both these formats are released with the usual warnings that the beta may not be stable, in practice, this is a mature beta. It ran without problems on both machines I tested it on.

Applications

Besides Xfce's speed, the desktop environment's reputation rests on its specialized applications. Fuzzy makes no major change to Thunar, Xfce's lightweight file manager, or Xfce Appfinder, the convenient list of installed programs, but other programs are improved in minor ways. For example, the logout dialog is expanded to include options to suspend or hibernate the computer, or to switch users. Similarly, the Xfce mixer now supports simultaneous use of different sound systems such as ALSA and OSS, as well as multiple sound cards, and independent settings for various audio input and output sources.

So far, the greatest changes in single applications seem to be in the Orage calendar. Behind the scenes, Orage now has a man page. On the desktop, you can now add not only events, but also to-do notes and journal entries to a date. Within entries, you can also create color-coded categories to further organize your calendar. You can set alarms based on the end of an appointment, set a default alarm, or have alarms activated if Orage or the computer was turned off when you should have received it. You can now save appointments to separate files, and import text files from other sources to Orage. Such changes improve Orage almost out of recognition, uplifting it from a mediocre application to a much more convenient one.

New configuration tools

By far the largest changes in the beta are to settings. At the command-line level, a new program called xconf-query replaces the old MCS configuration system with one modeled on GNOME's gconf. This new system should please the expert users of Xfce, but is probably best avoided by beginning or intermediate users. When you consider that, to change the desktop wallpaper so that it uses an image called garden.png, you must enter a command like xfconf-query -c xfce4-desktop -p /backdrop/screen0/monitor0/image-path -s /home/john/garden.png
, you understand that this tool is not for everybody.

Mercifully, the new configuration system is supported by a new graphical settings manager that anybody should be able to use. In version 4.6, the settings manager no longer uses menus. Instead, the dialog for a selected item slides out to replace the top-level dialog, and a Back button helps you to retrace your steps, much as in the settings dialog in KDE 4. This system is somewhat clumsy, even if it does minimize the number of windows open on the desktop, but since organization of features is via tabs after the first level, the chances of getting lost are minimized.

Looking through the settings manager, you will find that many existing controls are rearranged. User interface settings are now grouped under the more clearly named Appearance settings. Similarly, accessibility options are removed from the Mouse and Keyboard settings to form a category of their own, and Autostart moves from Sessions and Startup.

Many of these changes are simply rearrangements, but in a few cases they are accompanied by changes in features. For example, under Display Settings, controls for gamma correction are now removed -- probably because few users know what they are for -- but the options now include a rotated monitor display. Similarly, the Desktop options now include a setting for choosing the default icons.

You'll notice other changes in the Xfce desktop. To start with, Xfce has gone international, with support for more languages, and support for a variety of keyboard layouts that was missing from earlier releases.

However, what users will likely notice most is the addition of a right-click menu to the desktop. This new menu includes not only an entry for Desktop Settings, but options to create launchers, links, or folders -- a choice of options and nomenclature borrowed from GNOME. It's a simple addition, but a major improvement in usability over 4.4, in which these items were secreted away in the right-click menu of icons, where they were easy to overlook. At least 4.4 had desktop icons, which was more than you could say for earlier releases, but, with 4.6, the tools for adding them are now located where they can be found.

The best of both worlds

Xfce has always had the reputation of being a geeky desktop, designed for those who dislike what they perceive as the feature and hard drive bloat of KDE and GNOME -- and, perhaps, those who are uncertain about the idea of a desktop at all. Early Xfce releases fed into this reputation by depending on command line and text file configuration.

Something of this impression still lingers in the 4.6 beta, as xfconf-query shows. However, in the last release or two, Xfce has focused more on usability, borrowing from the best of KDE and GNOME while adding touches of its own. To its developers' credit, Xfce has become more user-friendly while managing to preserve the quickness that its advanced users value.

Not only do the dozens of small changes add up to a level of usability that users at any level of experience can value, but the 4.6 beta is even faster than 4.4. Individually, most of the changes in 4.6 may be minor, but the overall result promises to be one of the best user experiences available on the free desktop.

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